File and print—one of the most frequently used services in the IT world—has been the reason why American businesses have purchased millions of general-purpose file servers. But managing file server storage is tedious and expensive. One alternative is Networked Attached Storage (NAS)—a server dedicated to file and print serving. In the Windows world, the file and print choice today is simple: Buy Windows 2000 Server, or buy a Windows-powered NAS (WPNAS) device.

You can purchase a WPNAS device only from a hardware partner. A WPNAS is a separate OS that you load on a Win2K Server machine and that is optimized for network storage so that all capability that isn't required for file and print serving is taken out and additional file and print serving features are added in. The remaining code is then optimized specifically for file and print services in a Windows environment and made available to storage hardware companies to embed in their products.

WPNAS devices are headless; that is, they don't contain their own management UI—you must use another display device on the network to manage them. These devices provide two management console alternatives: You can use any networked PC with a browser, or you can use Windows 2000 Server Terminal Services. Either option lets you manage WPNAS devices from anywhere on the network.

The IT trend is moving away from general-purpose servers that you must configure and moving toward servers that are preconfigured for a specific purpose (e.g., file serving, Web serving). Microsoft seeks to create more reliable, manageable, and easy to install devices by creating a version of the Windows OS that's dedicated to one application. For example, Microsoft is developing its NAS and Web servers as dedicated devices. The company's Windows-powered strategy is to create specialized OS versions for hardware partners to embed in their hardware solutions.

The Windows-powered strategy also lets Microsoft respond more quickly to growing competition in the marketplace. For example, when Linux Samba provided a simple, low-cost alternative for Windows file and print services on Windows NT Server, Microsoft needed to respond. If Microsoft had responded to the Samba challenge by changing Win2K Server, the company would have damaged its application server business, which has a different set of customer requirements than its file and print services business has. Instead, Microsoft wisely chose to spin off a separate development team to focus directly on NAS, which resulted in a separate product line for Microsoft and its partners.

WPNAS has gone from zero to 32 percent of the NAS market share in 18 months. Microsoft's presence in the NAS market has accelerated the pace of NAS product development, bringing once high-end features such as hot-swappable drives and geo-clustering to the reach of small and midsized businesses. Microsoft's WPNAS strategy also lets the company license file and print services differently from how it licenses the services in Win2K Server to stay cost-competitive with UNIX and Linux-based NAS solutions.

The WPNAS strategy has a dedicated development team to build the next-generation Web server platform, Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server) 2003, Web Edition. Win.NET Web Edition is a headless device optimized for Web serving. In time, Microsoft might apply the Windows-powered strategy to other devices, such as Storage Area Networks (SANs), caching appliances, and firewall appliances, providing IT a choice between purchasing dedicated or general-purpose servers.

The next time you need to upgrade your Windows file and print infrastructure, take a look at WPNAS. I think you'll find its reliability, features, licensing, and pricing are hard to beat, and that it's easier to manage than general-purpose file servers.